Leadership Lessons From the Pentagon to the Classroom

Adjunct professor Eric Odderstol not only teaches leadership in the EMDC program but also utilizes the same lessons in his work at the Pentagon.

What is the difference between organizational success and failure? For Northwestern Engineering adjunct professor Eric Odderstol, the deciding factors can be difficult to determine.

"People know when they are being poorly led, but they don’t necessarily know when they are being well-led," said Odderstol, who is Deputy Director of Marine Corps Facilities at the Pentagon. "Having said that, it's incredibly difficult to articulate why that is so. I make an analogy to building design. No one ever notices a good building, where the light switch is where it is supposed to be and the HVAC system isn't too loud. But when it's not good, when the door is not where it's supposed to be, we start noticing. How do those things manifest?"

Odderstol, along with adjunct professor Joel Sensenig, works to answer that question and others that can vex executives in Leadership and Organization, a course in the Master of Science in Executive Management for Design and Construction (EMDC) online program that hones the leadership skills of executive managers. Odderstol has taught the class three times, and each time, his own perspective has evolved.

"It forces me to reassess my own understanding of leadership," said Odderstol, who oversees a staff of more than 50 people, including architects and engineers, who work with the Marine Corps' vast network of facilities and buildings. "I get a lot out of the interaction with students — they ask good questions, they challenge, they are thoughtful."

Leadership and Organization gives students the opportunity to explore — through case studies, group projects, and real-world examples — the challenges of achieving demanding objectives and improving efficiencies while showcasing leadership skills that inspire employees.

"We look at some of the leadership skills that are needed and how they are required to evolve over time," he said. "We talk about transformation and what that might look like. We do spend time talking about failure — why do some organizations fail and others stand the test of time? I find it rewarding to help guide folks on a path to self-discovery, because I think, fundamentally, leadership is an exercise in self-awareness."

Odderstol said he likes to partake in the old Navy tradition of "sea stories," sharing with his students examples from his long military career and time in the public sector as Operations Leader for Arcadis to help engage and create discussion topics.

"Teaching leadership at any point along a career is essential to continuing success," Odderstol said. "These are people who have been in the workforce eight to 10 years and they are looking for a competitive advantage. So every week, I like to give them a tool they might use, a tip, a question to ask, or an opportunity to take advantage of. Hopefully, they walk away with something to put in their personal tool kit."

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